Albert Shanker, Image and Reality

— Mirian Swerdlow and Kit Adam Wainer

THE DEATH OF Albert Shanker on February 22, 1997 provoked a flurry of eulogistic praise both inside and outside the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Presidents, think tank experts and AFL-CIO leaders held in high regard the man who had presided over the national teachers’ union for twenty-three years.

Although the AFT is less than half the size of its rival, the National Education Association, Shanker had become the most widely known figure in teacher unionism.

Shanker, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in 1928 and raised in New York City. He was reared in the immigrant radicalism of the 1930s and often remarked that in his home “unions were just below God.”

Shanker participated in civil rights activities while a student at the University of Illinois at Champagn-Urbana in the late 1940s. There he developed an interest in socialism and organized a socialist study club. More of a “state department socialist” than a revolutionary, Shanker combined pro-unionist sentiment with strong support for the Cold War foreign policies of the United States government.

Shanker began his union activities back home in the 1950s. He started teaching elementary and junior high school mathematics in 1952 and left to become a full-time organizer for the Teachers Guild in 1959.

The 2,400-member Guild was New York City’s AFT affiliate but was only one of several small unions competing for membership among New York City teachers. In 1960 the Guild merged with a splinter group from the more militant High School Teachers Association to form the United Federation of Teachers.

After leading a series of strikes and winning a contract, the UFT won a certification election and became the New York City teachers’ collective bargaining agent in 1961.

Riding the Liberal Backlash

Al Shanker was elected UFT President in 1964. His control at the time was hardly unchallenged: his opponent, Ben Mazen, received thirty-six percent of the vote in that year’s local elections.

Shanker’s rise coincided with a shift in the civil rights movement from demands for political rights and formal equality, centered in the South and depending on a strategy of massive civil disobedience and alliance with white liberals, to more radical demands for economic equality.

The Black liberation movement also began to utilize more direct forms of power and experimented, mostly in theory, with armed struggle. This was a threat to the movement’s former liberal allies, which included many New York City teachers. Their attitude, that Blacks had proven ungrateful, was patronizing and racist.

In New York City, as elsewhere, politicians and policymakers were straining to keep a handle on Black activism and sentiment. They introduced a policy of decentralization of schools below the high school level, granting “community control” over them.

Although the only thing this gave the communities control over was inadequate resources, parents felt it could fulfill their desire to see their kids achieve more and lead better lives within the existing system. For this reason, they supported it.

A handful of experimental decentralized districts was set up in July, 1967. One of these was in Brooklyn, in an area formed by two Black communities, Ocean Hill and Brownsville. It was given modest funding by the Ford Foundation.

In the spring of 1968, thirteen teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville District were informed they no longer had jobs in the district. Although both sides – the union and the district – referred to this as a firing, all these teachers were still employed by the Board of Education. Furthermore, it is very likely that if the district had followed procedures, it could have gotten these teachers transferred into other districts.

A Strike Against the Black Community

In this volatile situation, Shanker made a choice to exploit the conflict. He chose to call the situation a “firing” and to support a teacher strike in the district for the remainder of the school year. This in turn encouraged Black parents to see white teachers as sabotaging their children’s schools. At the same time, it promoted racist attitudes among teachers.

This was not an inevitable result. Shanker could have tried to make an alliance with Black leaders to fight for greater funding and more resources for the public schools. He could have put a priority on educating the UFT membership on the need to accept Blacks as decision-makers and educational leaders.

This would have put the UFT in a strong position to gain full negotiating rights for teachers under even complete community control. Shanker, however, chose a different path.

He exploited the idea held by many of his members that Blacks were hostile, especially to Jews, and that their gain in decision-making power was a danger to white teachers. He played on white teachers’ racist dislike of being supervised by people of color.

In September 1968 the UFT opened the school year with a series of three strikes whose goal was to end, or at least cripple, community control of local school districts. Most leftists in the union crossed the picket line, viewing the strike as an action against the community.

This was an accurate analysis. The strike did not aim to increase teachers’ job rights or job security in general, but only to break the power of the decentralized community boards. It was, in this view, a strike of one part of the working class, the teachers, against another, the community and parents. Furthermore, this other section of the working class suffered from a special racist oppression.

When the strikes were finally settled in November, the union had won all of its demands. The local boards were disbanded. A New York State bill decentralizing City schools was defeated. A watered-down version of decentralization was subsequently implemented instead. Shanker also increased his grip on the union by stigmatizing the leftists in the union who had opposed the strike as scabs.

A Weaker Union in the Crisis

The effects of this strike have been both destructive and long-lasting. Among New York City people of color, it has left an image of the teachers and their union as enemies whose goal is to destroy Black and Latino children. Lack of public support is a handicap to any union, but it is especially bad for a public sector union.

Within the union, the strike discredited potential oppositionists, which gave Shanker a far freer hand in his subsequent policies that limited union democracy and militancy. These changes in turn contributed to the impotence of the rank and file during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

Albert Shanker was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1974. He would remain president of both the AFT and UFT for twelve years. Only one year after his promotion to national prominence, Shanker faced an extraordinary ordeal: a strike that union leaders did not want.

In 1975 New York City sank into a historic fiscal crisis. That summer Mayor Abe Beame, working with a team of bankers, constructed a plan to dramatically downsize city government. In the name of fiscal responsibility 15,000 teachers and paraprofessionals were laid off as the school year opened.

The cuts triggered a rampage of involuntary teacher transfers as more senior teachers, now deprived of work in their own schools, bumped less senior teachers in other schools. Furthermore, class sizes skyrocketed since a smaller number of teachers was available to teach a student body that had not shrunk.

Shanker initially counseled restraint, rejecting calls from his members for a strike. However, when the local’s delegate assembly, responding to rank-and-file pressure, demanded a strike, Shanker acquiesced. Shanker took control of the 1975 strike and led it to rapid defeat.

Within a week the UFT leadership accepted a new concessionary contract that did not address the layoffs. He then quickly called an emergency meeting at Madison Square Garden to ratify the deal before members had a chance to discuss it.

The failure of the 1975 strike was a devastating blow to Shanker’s opponents within the UFT. Having lost control of a strike it had insisted upon, the opposition began to splinter and shrink. Moreover, many rank and filers drew the demoralizing lesson that militant actions were unproductive and even costly.

This was exacerbated by New York’s repressive Taylor law, which penalizes state employees two days pay for each day they strike. Memories of 1975 still haunt some members today and make them unwilling to even consider a strike.

Shanker and his heirs have relied upon rank-and-file fears ever since. After 1975 Shanker consistently favored conciliation over confrontation. In later years he outlined his reasons for eschewing the strike as a valid weapon. “Since a strike represents a possibility of life and death for a union,” he argued, “you do not call a strike unless not calling it is also life and death.”

Thus Shanker crystallized in a single sentence the philosophy of so many labor officials. The UFT, having organized the largest local of any union in the country (its membership today is nearly 100,000), was reluctant to risk the massive dues income and the sizeable bureaucracy it supports by engaging in a strike.

In fact the 1975 strike was the last one in the local’s history; the union has not even called a job action in the twenty-two years since.

In the spring of 1996, when angry members of the UFT delegate assembly demanded that the union pursue militant measures to win a just contract, Shanker’s successor, Sandra Feldman, reiterated her predecessor’s stance and insisted that she would not “spill the economic blood” of her members.

The UFT membership has paid a terrible price for this conciliatory approach to unionism, and it has paid it several times. Over the past ten years UFT members have lived through forty-two months of wage freezes, stagnant or declining purchasing power, deterioration of sabbatical rights, an increased work day for paraprofessionals, and an increased work load for high school and junior high school teachers.

Bureaucratic Patronage

Since the 1975 strike, however, Shanker and his top supporters have fared much better than the rank and file. Within the union, Shanker helped build an impressive political machine that supported a small group of leaders atop a vast network of patronage.

Organized as the Unity Caucus within the UFT (and other AFT locals within New York state) and as the Progressive Caucus within the AFT, Shanker’s supporters have built a political party with a degree of internal discipline once associated with Stalinist organizations.

The Unity Caucus has dominated the UFT since the early 1960s. The most enduring legacy Shanker has left behind, the caucus rules the local as though it were a one-party regime. Membership in Unity is an unofficial prerequisite for any full- or part-time staff position within the union. And loyalty to the top officers is a requirement for membership in the caucus.

Before attending conventions of the AFT or New York State United Teachers, or even important meetings of the UFT’s delegate assembly, Unity members are reminded that caucus rules require that they vote the line of the leadership.

This tight caucus discipline enables the leadership to control voting even at meetings of the delegate assembly, ostensibly a democratic, representative body. There, public disagreement with the leadership can mean expulsion from the caucus and, therefore, the end of any career possibilities within the union.

Most delegates allowed the floor during delegate assembly meetings are from Unity. They support the leadership by asking questions in a fawning and obsequious way. They laud the leadership and thank them for various deeds, and they attack any motions or amendments from independents or dissidents that oppose Unity’s line. They often ridicule the individuals who introduce them, as well.

Also part of Shanker’s legacy is a delicate balance between tight caucus discipline and a relaxed approach to dealing with dissidents outside the caucus. While oppositionists are never rewarded with staff positions, or even part-time jobs, Unity leaders will offer them administrative support for their union activities.

Dissident chapter leaders (the equivalent of a school shop steward) can expect their higher officers to handle their grievances with the same degree of professionalism they afford to Unity loyalists. Thus non-Unity chapter leaders are under no immediate compulsion to organize against the leadership in order to carry out their day-to-day union work.

Shanker’s opposition to militance has remained central to Unity’s political identity. Unity, however, has perfected a model of top-down service unionism. UFT leaders have constructed an elaborate political machine which effectively resolves members’ salary, pension and health benefit problems.

More efficient than the Board of Education, the UFT bureaucracy is often able to uncover and correct errors in Board records, thus saving members a great deal of grief and often winning their support for the leaders and their staff.

Unity leaders go to great lengths to train chapter leaders in service unionism, reminding them repeatedly that they “are the union.” Chapter leaders undergo intensive training seminars in which they study contractual language and arbitration precedents. They are taught to become experts in and to rely upon the grievance procedure to resolve all labor-management disputes.

Nowhere in the volumes of training manuals, however, will one find references to membership mobilization, job actions or strike preparations.

Pro-Imperialist Ideologue

Shanker left the UFT in 1986 to devote all of his efforts to the national union. As AFT president Shanker became best known for his controversial stances on political and social issues. An ardent cold-warrior, Shanker was a member of Social Democrats U.S.A. (His long-time political advisor was Yetta Shachtman, one of the cadres of left-socialists who had become pro-imperialist hawks since the early 1960s.)

He was deeply involved in the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development, which cooperated with the U.S. State Department, to undermine independent unions throughout the world. Shanker consistently supported U.S. foreign policy objectives, endorsing the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s.

Shanker was a strong ally of former AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and unsuccessfully campaigned for Tom Donahue, who opposed John Sweeney in his bid for leadership of the federation in 1995.

Inside the AFT Shanker is now heralded for his once unpopular stands on education. Throughout the 1980s he spoke out for educational “excellence” and “reform.” In 1983 he shocked many union leaders when he endorsed the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report on public schools. Entitled A Nation at Risk, the document called for tougher graduation standards, longer school days and merit pay for teachers.

Shanker insisted that the AFT needed to be in the forefront of a crusade for standards and professionalism. Thus he supported experiments such as those of the Toledo Federation of Teachers in 1982 to weaken tenure rights and involve union members in firing other teachers.

In Shanker’s vision the AFT needed to become less of a trade union and more of a professional association, like the American Medical Association. Such an organization would have more control over its profession and would have to regulate standards and practices for its members.

Shanker’s vision offers little to AFT members, however. They face problems such as budget cuts, school downsizing and legislative attacks on tenure designed not to raise standards but to enhance administrative prerogatives.

Nonetheless, his perspectives continue to reign among top AFT leaders. UFT president Sandra Feldman, who will finish Shanker’s term as national president, endorses his emphasis on standards and his reluctance to mobilize union members.

In the end Shanker’s vision has been little more than a cover for inactivity in the face of nation-wide assaults on public education. Just as the AMA’s professionalism has not protected doctors from the increasing power of HMOs and large hospitals over their occupation, AFT strategies have failed to stop school districts and state legislatures from demanding greater productivity from school employees.

The Shanker-Feldman vision has so weakened teacher unionism that government officials can now openly consider the privatization of public education. Therefore, the future of education may depend on the ability of rank-and-file members to challenge the Unity/Progressive Caucus and replace the union’s rhetoric of professionalism with a strategic vision of militance, solidarity and democracy.

Marian Swerdlow and Kit Adam Wainer are members of SOLIDARITY and teacher union activists in New York City.

ATC 69, July–August 1997